Lithuanian Diamonds: An Interview With Twenty Fingers Duo

Photo by A. Morozovas

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Lithuania’s Twenty Fingers Duo have only been on my radar for about a year, but in that time I have been completely taken in by their work. The siblings, violinist Lora Kmieliauskaitė and cellist Arnas Kmieliauskas have a keen sense of how each other plays (unsurprisingly!) and use that to transmit elegant waves of emotion and feeling. Not only that, their work highlights a diverse cast of exceptional Lithuanian composers, many of whom they have commissioned to write pieces specifically for the project. There is so much great music and art to learn about from Lithuania and Twenty Fingers Duo is an excellent starting point.

Lora and Arnas can be found via Facebook or Instagram and their two most recent albums are available from miclithuania.

So I love to start interviews by going back. What were some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Were there any certain songs or pieces of music – or even environmental sounds perhaps – that caught your ear and have stuck with you through the years?

L: We have spent our childhood surrounded by nature. All I can remember thinking about sounds at an early age is related to nature. Meadows, rivers, birds – everything was there. Speaking about music, our parents would go on expeditions and collect Lithuanian folklore, anyways, there was always room for rock, pop, and dance music in our everyday life as well. I would not single out one specific melody. Well, maybe lullabies. They have settled in the deepest layers of subconsciousness.

A: Lora and I spent our first years in a small town, and although Lora mentions being surrounded by nature and our family playing various instruments, some of my earliest memories of music from childhood are of discos 🙂 Our parents together with their like-minded people used to organize discos in the cultural center of the town and they always took us along, where we often fell asleep to such Western tunes as ABBA, Enya, Def Leppard, ACDC, etc.

And when did you first start learning to play an instrument and what was the impetus for that?

L: I was very little when my grandfather gave me a violin and a table tennis racket. And he took care of both of these games of mine. I did not choose the instrument myself, this was how the family environment was created, everybody played music, and everybody had their own instruments. I do not even remember the reason for mine being a violin.

A: We have been playing music in our family since we were little. Anyway, we moved to the capital city of Vilnius when I was five, and my mother took me to the most prestigious art school in Lithuania M. K. Čiurlionis School of Art and said: “Well, let‘s try the ballet department.“ I remember that I immediately burst into tears as I knew that this was the only weapon I had to make my mother change her mind. Then we turned around and went to the music department. As Lora had been learning to play the violin for several years already, it was decided that I will try the cello. It was my mother‘s favorite instrument, so it was her influence.

How did you all start playing music together as Twenty Fingers Duo?

L: We are siblings, we have spent our lives learning things next to each other, also, we would always play in one or another ensemble together. Quartets, trios, and orchestras of all kinds, we went on the same tours to see the world, and we also had the same interests in genres. Eventually, our love and inclination for contemporary music crystallized, and we started to spend most of our time concentrating on vocalizing this genre and getting better in this particular field. The name Twenty Fingers Duo is in the last place here. First of all, we are siblings.

On your first album, Performa, you commissioned six different pieces of music from six different Lithuanian composers. How did you all decide who to approach about the project?

A: The “family“ of Lithuanian artists and musicians is quite close and familiar. We already knew all the artists we invited to join Performa in various musical contexts, either through past collaborations or by working on bringing new common musical ideas to life. Therefore, the final group of six formed very quickly.

Were there any sort of ideas or instructions given or did each composer have the freedom to write whatever they wanted for you all? It’s wonderful how cohesive it all works together.

L: Thank you! Certainly, when all together these works have even more power. When we were creating Performa, we traveled a lot in our own country, and noticed its uniqueness all over again, so we also asked the composers to choose one artifact, whether it was a person or a place symbolizing a spring of the creative action. This is how the creative processes expanded from a dedication to Čiurlionis, to silence in the forest, to the dew and mist in the morning of Lithuanian August.

A: The compositions in Performa are very different among themselves but it is possible to find connections and common points of convergence in all of them. We spoke about our vision to the composers and maybe even the environment itself dictated the rules of the game to us more. But we always try not to suppress or limit the diversity of ideas and expressions of any composer.

We also had a digital artist Lauryna Narkevičiūtė on our team for this project, who also helped to bring the sonic experience together with her visual aesthetic and ideas.

What surprised you the most when you got the pieces from the composers and started to rehearse and record them?

L: They were all so different. Both the works and the processes. To perfect Bumstein‘s sound artwork “Lyrica” required completely different skills and listening than, for example, Maslekov‘s “Shadows of Nighttime Canvases“, which were based exclusively on extended techniques. The whole “Lyrica” piece was prepared and rehearsed with the constant presence of the composer, while Vitkauskaitė‘s work was “put in places“ entirely by us, following the composer‘s references in the score in a classical way. The aspect of freedom we had also varied. For example, Digimas‘ piece is played exactly in milliseconds according to the score, realizing the composer‘s finest intentions second by second. Other pieces left more room for our own interpretation.

And you just released your second album, Dualitas, at the end of 2021. I was blown away by it. Can you first tell me a little bit about what makes these pieces by Kristupas Bubnelis and Rita Mačiliūnaitė so special and how you envisioned them working together as an album? You all mention how different they are, but you’ve done an amazing job bringing them together in a way that works so well.

L: It is very nice to hear this! Thank you for your kind words. It all happened very naturally. This time we did not prepare or contemplate the concept. I think this album is simply a very nice reflection of what we have been doing for the last few years. It just happened that we had worked with both artists in long-term collaborations on new premieres. We worked in a successful creative residency DAR with Kristupas. And talking about Rita, we met her while recording her own previous album Acting Music. Thus, we were all very much in tune with each other. “Dreamcatcher 2120” was born out of this friendship. The pieces are united by time, people, and perhaps by the way the ensemble worked at that time. Of course, there is this historical, cultural context – the last years were shackled by the pandemic, and the themes of discomfort and exclusion are also woven into the musical fabric.

Elias Peter Brown contributes electronics to the album which adds such an interesting array of textures and heightens the beauty of the strings. How did you all get him involved in the making of the album and what gave you the idea to incorporate electronics? Is this something you hope to do more of in the future?

L: The idea of inviting Elias and adding electronics came to Kristupas Bubnelis a bit later, when the creative work was started already. Elias joined us at a distance because at that time Covid was creating difficulties to travel freely. He heard our sound and our rehearsals, and drafts. As far as I am concerned, the thoughts of both artists merged together very nicely into one piece.

Generally speaking, electronics, both fixed and live, have a certain place in our performances and programs: very often, in collaboration with artists, not only electronics but also video media and sensors are included in the works. It is a big part of the creative process, but the materials and the matter from which the works are born always depend on the idea. The use of other elements is not a primary expectation or an aim in itself. The gathering of tools, that crystallization itself is one of the most interesting creative stages.

The other aspect of these pieces that is so captivating – even though I don’t understand a word of it – is the narration and voices. Are these passages part of the original composition or was this an idea you all had to incorporate them? As I sit here listening to Dualitas once more, I am enraptured again. It’s really one of my favorite albums I’ve heard this year.

L: Rita Mačiūnaitė created the electronics herself. She gathered and documented the stories of the people who recorded their voices and wrote to her telling about their dreams. She divided these dreams into five categories – the five parts of the “Dreamcatcher” are exactly about these phantasmagoric experiences. Science fiction is here, thanks to the narrator, seen through the rather sensitive stories about the subconscious, dream life of selected people. The voices of the people are woven into the fabric not only as narrators, but their voices play along with us like melodic elements. And Aivaras Doškus plays the role of the main storyteller, revealing this fantastic story to the audience.

Also, who are the narrators and vocalists? I know there’s a credit for Aivaras Dočkus, but I hear so many voices, especially throughout “Dreamcatcher 2120.”

A: As Lora already mentioned, the core of Rita’s work is the collection and recording of people’s dreams and experiences. In the five parts of the piece, authentic stories are embedded and correlated with the musical fabric, and it is all connected by the fictional narratives of Aivaras Dočkus about a utopian future world and the dreams collected and categorized in the space station.

What is the scene and support like for experimental music and composition in Lithuania? Are the other artists working in this area that we should all be aware of?

L: We do have a very rich Lithuanian contemporary music scene. From composers to sound artists, from performers to “production house.” To tell you about all the interesting things happening in the field of contemporary music in our country would require a separate conversation :)) To mention a few I follow regularly: Synaesthesis, Operomanija, Katarsis, Simonas Nekrošius, Jūra Elena Šedytė, Ambulance on Fire, Arturas Bumšteinas, Gailė Griciūtė, Lina Lapelytė, Šarūnas Nakas, Kristupas Gikas.

A: Lithuania is thriving not only in contemporary music but also in contemporary art in general. The interest in new creators, their expressions, and syntheses of art is constantly growing. I think that various organizations, associations, and societies make a big contribution. To mention a few: Operomanija, Sodas 2123, Lukiškės Prison 2.0, and the Music Information Centre Lithuania, which actively supports creators.

What is next for you all as a duo? Does either of you have any solo works or recordings planned?

A: Besides Twenty Fingers Duo, we are active in other musical fields, associations, and personal projects. Thus, all our time is divided between different creative experiences. However, with “Fingers” we try to find space for new challenges that would make us grow as creators. We are planning to take a tour around Lithuania with the audiovisual presentation concerts during the next few months. And for the autumn we are planning a presentation of a new stage work – a musical dance performance (the form is not fully clear yet) together with a wonderful team of artists: choreographer Martynas Rimeikis, playwright Rimantas Ribačiauskas, composers Albertas Navickas and Jūra Elena Šedytė, dancers Jaronimas Krivickas and Julija Stankevičiūtė, and, of course, us – Lora and Arnas, Twenty Fingers Duo.

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